Saturday, April 30, 2016

Underacheiving local sports teams

After making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Rockets were poised to make a run for the NBA Championship in 2016. Instead, the season has been a complete disaster: their head coach was dismissed just a few weeks into the season, which just ended with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets never came together as a team this year and really didn't deserve to go to the playoffs at all. The way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if they don't even manage a winning record in the 2016-17 season.

The Houston Astros also took a big step forward in 2015 (their chokejob to the eventual World Series champs aside) and were expected to be a strong contender in 2016. Instead, the team has fallen apart. Their 7-16 record is tied for the worst in the American League, and after only a month into the season they are already five games back of the decidedly-mediocre Texas Rangers in the AL West. While there's still plenty of time for the Astros to turn things around, right now they look completely lost.

That's two Houston sports teams that have failed, or are currently failing, to meet expectations coming off of strong performances the previous seasons. I have two thoughts about this:
  • Being a Houston sports fan continues to suck. There is not another city in this country whose sports teams collectively let their fans down with the frequency and manner that Houston teams do.

  • They say bad news comes in threes, and there's another local sports team that did well last year and has high expectations for this season.
To be sure, the Cougars are losing a lot of talent from last season's top-ten, Peach-Bowl-winning season. William Jackson III, for example, was taken in the first round of  the NFL Draft Thursday night. Houston has a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and so another 13-1 (or even 14-0!) season might not be in the cards. But can they avoid following the lead of the Rockets and the Astros, and at least stay competitive?

126 days 'til kickoff, by the way...

I now return this blog to its previously-scheduled break.

John Zemanek 1921-2016

I'm not sure I ever encountered an instructor - at any level of my education - quite like John Zemanek. I interacted with him frequently while a student at the University of Houston College of Architecture, be it through the courses I took from him, the numerous critiques and juries of mine that he attended, the Friday afternoons I spent chatting with him in his office, or the visits to his fascinating Montrose home my friends and I made. And even after all that, I don't think I ever quite understood him. To say that he was merely "eccentric" or "enigmatic" would be an understatement.

John Zemanek was a brilliant man; he was a scholar of philosophy, art, anthropology and history as much as he was an instructor of architecture. That was, in my opinion, both a gift and curse to his teaching abilities.

The actual lecture courses I took from him were a disappointment. They were always variations on the same theme: the Western World is in decline; consumer culture, the privatization (and militarization) of public space, and the rise of the "entertainment-industrial complex" are making us a bunch of joyless pawns of the rich; knowledge is being superseded by mere information; culture is being superseded by mere civilization. Maybe he had a point - see, for example, Donald Trump - but his lectures oftentimes felt like apocalyptic indoctrination sessions with only tenuous links to the actual practice of architecture. I didn't do well in his classes.

He was much more engaging when he was outside the classroom setting and not following a scripted lesson plan. I think I learned more about architecture and urbanism from him just by chatting with him in his office or walking to and from the Satellite for lunch with him than I did by sitting in his lectures. He was especially interested in youth culture (and counterculture) and on a couple of occasions even accompanied my friends and me to a couple of rave parties to observe Houston's nascent techno scene. Zemanek is also probably one of the major reasons why I decided to go to graduate school for a degree in city planning.

I think a friend of mine said it best: "on the one hand a condescending prick of an architect, on the other a teacher pushing his students to be better."

Although I knew that he served in the Second World War, I had no idea that Zemanek was a bombardier on a B-24 and that his plane was shot down on the last day of the European war. He never talked (to me, at least) about his experiences in WW II, although they clearly had a great influence on his life and teachings.

As is my custom, I'm reposting his Chronicle obituary here. The UH College of Architecture has a more detailed remembrance as well.
Johnny "John" Eugene Zemanek, FAIA, architect, planner and professor, 94, died Monday, April 18. The youngest of twelve children of Bohemian political refugees Jan (John) and Frantiska (Frances) Machacek Zemánek of Moravia, John was born in Guy, Texas near the Brazos River. He attended Big Creek, Guy, and Damon rural schools, before attending Texas A & M University and graduating with a degree in architecture, a member of the Corps of Cadets. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserves and entered active duty in January 1943. A second lieutenant, he served as a bombardier on B-24 Liberators, flying allied missions from Foggia, in southern Italy. On the last day of the European war, his plane was shot down and made an emergency landing at an unmarked airfield behind enemy lines. All crewmembers were recovered.

After the war, he went on to The University of Texas in Austin for Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a Master of City Planning degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, led by Walter Gropius. John returned to Houston to practice with Kenneth Franzheim, then relocated to Tokyo to work for Czech American modernist architect Antonin Raymond; there he planned 17 airbases in the Far East. He practiced also for the U. S. Department of State in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) planning village housing and institutes.

Returning to Houston, he worked with many of Houston's eminent firms, including Wilson, Morris, and Crain, where he contributed to the development of the Harris County Domed Stadium, now known as the Astrodome.

Invited to teach at the University of Houston College of Architecture first as a visitor, then full time in 1964, he earned tenure in 1969. He maintained a solo practice, and his independent architecture reflected the profound influence of his Texas rural heritage and landscape as well as his respect for and deep knowledge of the diverse Asian cultures that engaged him so fully throughout his life. His work has been published in local, national and international journals and television media, and has won design awards at the local, state, and national level. In 1978 he earned the national AIA Honor Award, for his Three H Services Center, a social services complex for the Bordersville community, which had been established by former slaves. He is remembered especially for a series of three Montrose houses, each designed as his personal residence, dating from 1969, 2000 and 2011. He would later refer to these as Gaia 1, 2, and 3. While each is an unassuming essay on modest materials carefully combined for great spatial effect, a comparison reveals the evolution of his thinking from ephemeral delicacy toward distinct rootedness.

Over his 48 years of teaching at the University of Houston he never failed to challenge students to think critically and to engage them in an "architecture that begins with our social structure."
His latest creative efforts include his memoir Being••Becoming (2016) published just before his death, and a design consultation for Morningstar Coffee, opening in Houston next month.
John was preceded in death by his parents, 5 brothers and 6 sisters. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Sue Zemanek, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and extended family and by a multitude of friends.

Details of a memorial will be forthcoming. Donations may be made in his honor to the UH Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Taking a breather

As my readers (if there are any of them remaining) may have noticed, this blog has not seen a lot of activity lately. There are several reasons for this, from the fact that my home computer is not working properly (it has an annoying habit of randomly shutting down, so I need to get it repaired), to the fact that changes in my personal life have left me less time to blog (did I mention that I have a new girlfriend!?!?), to the fact that I just haven't found much of anything interesting to write about lately (football season is over, I haven't taken any major travels since last summer, and the presidential race disgusts me).

So, I'm going to be taking a break from Mean Green Cougar Red for awhile. While this is not the "permanent hiatus" I keep threatening to make, it is likely that this will be my last post for a few months. Aside from getting my computer fixed, there are a lot of important activities I need to undertake over the next few months - among them, deciding on a middle school for Kirby, moving out of my home of the last four years when the lease is up, and oh, did I mention that I have a new girlfriend!? - that will leave no time for blogging.

If I come across or experience something that I urgently feel the need to write about, I will; otherwise, I'll probably be back at the keyboard sometime this summer.

Take care!

Will the oil bust cost Houston its international air connections?

Anybody who follows this blog knows that I have been obsessively covering the additions (and subtractions) to the list of international air connections from Bush Intercontinental (and Hobby) airport to the rest of the world. As Houston's population and economy have grown, so has the city's status as an international air travel hub. However, problems in the energy sector could slow or even reverse that trend.
Declining demand for business-class tickets due to the slumping oil business could make it more difficult for the Houston Airport System to continue luring international airlines.

"It won't be as easy as it was in the past," system director Mario Diaz said Monday after a State of the Airport event sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership.

More than 10 international airlines - including Air China in 2013 and Air New Zealand last year - have added flights to Bush Intercontinental Airport since 2013. Many of those airlines were drawn by the chance to sell higher-margin seats to business travelers during the height of the oil boom.
They and other airlines remain committed to Houston, although some are now flying smaller planes or reducing the frequency of flights, Diaz said. Scandinavian Airlines stopped its nonstop flights between Bush Intercontinental and Stavanger, Norway, in late October.
Emirates, likewise, has discontinued using the double-decker A380 on its flights between Houston and Dubai, opting to use a smaller 777 instead. And by virtue of being Houston's largest single carrier, United is especially exposed to the pinch:
United Airlines, the major carrier at Bush, said Monday that low oil prices had disproportionately affected its business travel. Earlier this year, United said it would shift capacity from Houston to more robust airports.

If low oil prices persist for more than a year and a half, Diaz said, some of the smaller airlines may be "rethinking the value of remaining in Houston."
Unfortunately, the prospects for recovery in the price of crude, at least in the short-term, are highly dubious. And while I appreciate Diaz's desire to put a positive spin on the situation, I'm not sure I'm buying this:
But there is a silver lining for tourists or the friends-and-family traveler. With low fuel prices, he said some airlines are offering cheaper economy tickets to help offset the decline in business travel.

"I think the Houston public can expect a really, really good vacation," he said.
Selling cheaper economy tickets will not likely recoup the revenue lost from selling pricey business-class tickets, unfortunately.

While I'd hope that Houston's population is large enough, and its economy diversified enough, to continue to make this city a lucrative destination for international carriers, it's possible that we will see at least a few airlines discontinue service to Houston before things get better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A "Purple" alternative for I-45 downtown

I actually became of Purple City’s impressive plan for the “downtown ring” – an alternative to TxDOT’s plans for completely reconstructing I-45 in and around downtown Houston – over a week ago, but haven’t had the chance to offer my two cents’ worth until now.

In a nutshell: it’s excellent.

It addresses a lot of flaws in the TxDOT plan. For example, the “managed express” (toll and high-occupancy vehicle) lanes that are discontinuous in the TxDOT plan are connected via the Pierce Elevated in the Purple City plan, meaning that buses and toll-paying vehicles traveling from Kingwood to the Texas Medical Center, or from Pearland to The Woodlands, don’t have to merge into general traffic lanes in order to get around downtown. The Purple City plan also retains the Polk Street crossing over 59/69 on the east end of downtown that the TxDOT design eliminates; a major flaw that will have an impact on car as well as transit operations between downtown and the east end.

Most importantly, the Purple City alternative asks an obvious question about the TxDOT plan: what is the logic in tearing down the Pierce Elevated, only to replace it by condemning almost 20 blocks of land on the east side of downtown to create a wide trench for 59/69 and 45?
In the East End, the 9/15 Plan demolishes the entire entertainment and nightlife district that has grown up around Saint Emanuel Street. This segment of the plan alone removes more land from the tax rolls than removal of the Pierce Elevated will add, assuming that corridor is redeveloped commercially.
The Purple City alternative hits on a variety of issues near and dear to my heart, including urban highway aesthetics. For example, can elevated highways be retrofitted to be more “urban-friendly?” The plan also reduces the need for right-of-way consuming frontage roads, eliminates confusing left-hand exists, and focuses on bicycle and transit connections in a way that the TxDOT plan does not.

I have a few quibbles with the Purple City alternative. For example, it replaces the planned University Line light rail along Richmond with a bus rapid transit line running between the University of Houston and the intersection of Westpark and Post Oak using managed lanes along 69/59. While this is a sensible transit service - it would require replacing the existing single, reversible HOV lane along 59/69 with a two-way, all-day structure, which needs to happen anyway – it would be of no benefit to the mixed-use, transit-friendly neighborhoods of Montrose and Upper Kirby that the University Line would serve. It also significantly reduces the potential for over-the-freeway deck parks that are a feature of the TxDOT plan.

All in all, however, the Purple City plan for I-45 has a lot of advantages over the TxDOT plan. Which raises the question: now that Purple City has put so much thought and effort into this alternate schematic, what's next? This plan has apparently been presented to TxDOT, which is an obvious first step, but will Purple City also be presenting this plan to area stakeholders, to the management districts in and around downtown, to decision-making bodies such as City Council, the METRO Board of Directors, and the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council?

Take a look at the report and the schematic, and stay tuned. Swamplot and Kuff have more.

On a not-entirely-unrelated note: while Houston decides what to do with their existing freeways in and around downtown, Lafayette, Louisiana is deciding if they want a new freeway to go through their downtown at all. In my grad school report about urban freeway aesthetics, I used I-49 through Lafayette as an example that urban freeway-building, for all the issues it creates, is not dead. I'll be following this story closely.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Bayport cruise terminal likely to close

Can't say I'm too surprised about this:
An ambitious, expensive and maybe misguided project to lure the cruise ship industry to Houston, and perhaps away from Galveston, is failing and will most likely be re-purposed for another use.

“I understand the port is considering several options -- one to use it as a retrofit for incoming automobiles,” said Sen. John Whitmire.

The Port of Houston would not confirm specific plans for Pasadena’s Bayport Cruise Terminal.
“There are other opportunities it can be used for and we’re going to continue to explore those opportunities,” Port of Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said.

Both Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises confirmed to Channel 2 Investigates the companies’  plans to remove their ships from the Port of Houston’s $108 million cruise terminal after the current season ends.

“The cruise lines have made a decision, a business decision, to go elsewhere,” Guenther, said.
As early as late April, the cruise terminal will be left with no cruise ships, a familiar problem.
The facility sat unused for its intended purpose for about six years before NCL and Princess Cruises signed on in 2012.
Given how cheaply NCL and Princess had been offering staterooms on cruises out of this terminal - I kept my eye on them because I was considering vacationing on one of them - it was clear that this facility was struggling to attract travelers. Its location was a liability, as Pasadena is nobody's idea of a tourist paradise, even if you're just going there to get on a ship:
“All you (have) to do is look at the location and use some common sense,” Whitmire said.
The Port of Houston’s cruise terminal, located in Pasadena, is at the end of a road that's home to heavy industry.

But the bigger problem in terms of location, Whitmire said, is for the cruise lines themselves, a point also made by Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

“In the end, you’ve got a logistical problem," Bettencourt said. "You’re moving a boat farther up the Ship Channel than what can be serviced by competitors right down in Galveston."

The trip from the Port of Houston’s Bayport Cruise Ship Terminal adds hours to time spent in intercoastal waters, where onboard casinos are not licensed to operate.
I also seem to recall hearing that heavy fog over the bay was also an issue, as it impeded ships from being able to navigate to the Bayport terminal in time for their scheduled disembarkation. That's not quite as much of a problem at Galveston, because it is closer to the open waters of the Gulf.

In the end, perhaps trying to operate two separate cruise terminals within a relatively short distance of one another was simply too ambitious. It's probably best for the Port of Houston to focus on what it does best - being one of the largest maritime freight terminals in the nation - and let the Port of Galveston handle cruise passengers.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival will continue to operate out of the Galveston terminal. No word as to whether NCL or Princess will one day operate ships from there as well.

Are you ready to travel to Cuba?

It's about to get a lot easier:
Houston's two dominant airlines are seeking approval to offer scheduled flights to Cuba.

On Tuesday, U.S. and Cuban officials signed an agreement previously announced in December that will restore scheduled air service between the countries.

United Airlines said in a statement that it will apply for flights between some of its global gateways and Havana.

Henry Harteveldt, founder of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research company, said it is possible that United will offer flights from Houston to Cuba, but the airline will ultimately choose airports based on the largest market opportunity.
Southwest Airlines will also contend for the coveted flights.
Houston is not guaranteed any direct flights to Cuba; the airlines themselves will determine where the flights to Havana and nine other Cuban airports will originate and I'm sure Miami and New York will get the lion's share of those flights. That being said, given Bush Intercontinental's status as United's Latin American gateway, I'd be very surprised if Houston didn't eventually end up with some sort of nonstop service to Cuba.

Even if flights between Houston and Cuba become a reality, there's still a catch: American citizens still can't travel there as tourists. Your travel has to be focused around one or more of twelve categories of allowable travel. But even then, the categories are broad enough to allow people to get creative:
"Almost every American should be able to travel to Cuba under one of these categories," Sen. Jeff Flake, a major sponsor of the new policy, told me last month. One lawyer who specializes in Cuba-US issues told the New York Times that if you can’t think up an itinerary that fits into one of the 12 categories, "you’re not trying." This doesn’t mean you need to be deceptive or dishonest. Instead, you can build a trip around the broad and inclusive language of the new regulations. Be forthright about the reason of your trip, and be ready to show an itinerary in the unlikely event that an American customs worker asks you for one.

The categories all contain the qualifier that your time in Cuba will not "include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule."

The language is meant to discourage lolling on the beach and lazily sipping mojitos at your hotel bar. As long as you have productive plans that fall within your category of choice, you can honestly certify that your travel is legal, even if you take a couple of extra hours to absorb the view while visiting the historic Morro Castle.
Should flights between Houston and Havana ever become a reality, I think I will need to do some professional research on Havana's bus system, or its commuter rail network!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 UH Cougar football schedule released

Last week, the 2016 University of Houston Cougar football schedule was released:

     Sat Sep 03     Oklahoma (Advocare Texas Kickoff, NRG Stadium)
     Sat Sep 10     Lamar
     Thu Sep 15    at Cincinnati
     Sat Sep 24     at Texas State
     Thu Sep 29    UConn
     Sat Oct 08     at Navy
     Sat Oct 15     Tulsa
     Sat Oct 22     at SMU
     Sat Oct 29     UCF
     Sat Nov 05    (off)
     Sat Nov 12    Tulane
     Thu Nov 17   Louisville
     Fri Nov 25     at Memphis

All in all, a pretty good schedule. The Coogs play two schools from “Power 5” conferences, including a blockbuster season opener against the Sooners at NRG Stadium. Two of the Coogs’ five away games are in-state, and there’s only one instance of back-to-back road games early in the season. The Cougars spend what amounts to a month at home between the SMU game and a Black Friday matchup at Memphis.

I could do without the two Thursday night home games – those always negatively impact attendance – and I would prefer the off week to be a couple of weeks earlier, but really, there’s nothing horrible about this slate of games. I’m already penciling in roadies to San Marcos and Annapolis on my calendar.

Given last year’s success, there’s every reason to expect this fall to be a good one as well. I’m not going to go so far as to predict an undefeated season, however; Oklahoma is going to be tough, Central Florida and Tulane will probably be much improved this fall, and Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis will all be looking to exact revenge against Houston at home. There’s also the reality that the Cougars are losing a lot of talent from last year’s team on both sides of the ball.

That being said, it's hard not to be excited about the 2016 season, and the wait until September is going to be very agonizing!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Tom Herman's impressive recruiting haul

With the caveat that I am skeptical of recruiting rankings because they tend to be biased in favor of "Power 5" schools - just look how the ratings of Bellaire's Courtney Lark and Manvel's D'Eriq King fell after they committed to University of Houston, as opposed to a P-5 school - I want to express my admiration and appreciation to head coach Tom Herman for bringing in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history last Wednesday. ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr. explains:
The Cougars signed the nation's 30th-ranked recruiting class, the highest finish ever for a school outside of a power conference (Power 5 currently or BCS previously). Houston also became the first non-power conference program to sign a five-star recruit since ESPN began ranking recruits in 2006.

Coming off a 13-1 season that included an American Athletic Conference championship, a win over Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and a top-10 finish in the polls, it is yet another victory for Herman's budding power.

Still, without the resources and facilities afforded to Power 5 conference programs that battled with the Cougars for ESPN 300 recruits, how did the Cougars land their historic class?
Khan goes on to explain how Herman and his staff forged relationships with high school football players and their coaches, focused their efforts on the talent-rich Houston area, and refused to accept that they couldn't recruit top-quality athletes simply because they weren't a "Power 5" school:
When coaches were out in the city during the evaluation period, they feared no Power 5 program.

"The mindset was we're going to go recruit these Houston-area guys and present something to them and not be afraid to compete against people for these local guys," offensive line coach Derek Warehime said.
UH's recruiting strategy seems very simple and logical, in theory. But it's not always easy to accomplish in practice; previous Cougar head coaches such as Art Briles (now head coach at Baylor) and Kevin Sumlin (now head coach at Texas A&M) never signed a class as talented as this one. But Herman and his staff were able to use this strategy to bring in a big "get" - a highly-rated, heavily-recruited five-star defensive tackle from Westfield High School by the name of Ed Oliver - and in turn build recruiting momentum:
Oliver valued the longstanding relationships he had and believed in the vision the staff sold. [Defensive line coach Oscar] Giles said Oliver called him often just to talk and he got to know Oliver's family well: "I knew who his girlfriend was, his brothers, mom, his great was a relationship that was built over time."

When Oliver verbally committed to the Cougars in May, there was no hat ceremony, no grand announcement on Twitter, just Oliver placing a phone call to the coaching staff. The news quickly spread, to the bewilderment of many who were surprised a prospect of that caliber pledged to a program in a non-power conference.

That moment, however, turned the "H-Town Takeover" from a simple hashtag and concept to a genuine, successful recruiting movement.

"I think it was like a big rock dropping into a big pool. Splash," Giles said. "Everybody knows the guy. They're like, 'They must be serious over there.' It gave us some credibility that we were doing it the right way."

Added [assistant coach Corby] Meekins: "That kind of broke the seal and made it OK to come here. When you get a player that's caliber and can go anywhere -- we have a lot of players in this class who could go anywhere -- but that made it OK."
To be sure, the power schools of the SEC and Big 12 did not passively sit by while Herman and his staff made their recruiting push. The Washington Post's Chuck Culpepper explores how Houston had to stave off 'poachers:'
That word can describe recruiters from other programs who, in the 147-year-old traditions of the sport, bring silver tongues and poaching arts and try to help players renege on prior commitments. That did foil Houston once, when the coveted Houstonian receiver Tyrie Cleveland changed his mind from Houston to sweet-talking, blue-blooded Florida, whose coaches jumped up and down upon learning the news.

It did not derail Houston. Rivals ranked its class No. 44 in a sport with 65 top-tier programs. ESPN slotted it at No. 30. Representing the underlings fiercely, Houston held onto Ed Oliver, the Houstonian defensive tackle generally bestowed the ultimate five stars, and when Oliver didn’t budge, he became both the only one of Rivals’ top 100 players to sign with a Group of Five program, and the day’s biggest upset according to ESPN. Courtney Lark, the four-star receiver, also held firm to help redefine his hometown’s atmosphere.

For their second recruiting class, Herman and his staff had fostered relationships with their signees, then had gone 13-1 with a major bowl win.

“And I think what that was able to do, then, was to solidify our position a little bit when the poachers came calling,” Herman said.

They did come calling, and the process was “nerve-wracking,” Herman said.
Other schools tried to sow doubt in the minds of Houston's commitments by using the by-now-tiresome trope that Herman would be leaving UH for a "bigger" program soon:
The 40-year-old coach proclaimed a 7-1 record against Southeastern Conference poachers, even as every recruit asked Herman what every poacher put in every recruit’s mind: How long are you staying?

“What I tell them is the truth,” he said, and then he went on a long, bountiful description of his pitch. It included that “in my opinion, the American Athletic Conference has undoubtedly separated itself from the other non-Power Five conferences” (what with Navy, Temple and Memphis also having successful seasons). It included a comparison of going 7-5 at some top-tier program — “It’s no fun going 7-5. It stinks, in fact. It’s really, really not fun” — set against this: “What’s really fun is when it feels like the whole city of Houston rushes onto the field, you’re kissing the trophy, holding it up, and there’s confetti falling, and you go to a New Year’s Six bowl game, and you’re playing one of the blue bloods, and you’re beating them by two touchdowns in the Peach Bowl.”
Highly-rated local recruits looked at what the Cougars accomplished last season, and brought in to Herman's pitch.

Obviously, getting these kids signed is just the first step in a process that includes their becoming and academically qualified, enrolled in school, and performing on the field. But if highly-ranked recruiting classes do correlate with success on the field, then the Cougars have a bright future ahead of them.

Which is why I just renewed my season tickets for 2016, even though kickoff is still over 200 days away.

Stupid journalist tricks

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker takes issue with a recent Los Angeles Times story regarding declining ridership on LA's public transportation network. While the drop-off in bus and rail boardings is a legitimate concern, especially given the amount of money LACMTA is investing in new rail lines, Walker argues that the story's writers, Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel, are making the problem appear worse than it seems by making two critical errors:
  1. Using one or two data points to determine a "trend," and
  2. Using an arbitrary "starting year" as a point of comparison.
I'm very familiar with these two "mistakes" (if you could call them that, because I tend to believe that they are deliberate) because I see them used by journalists all the time and in stories about a variety of subjects. Walker is, rightfully, calling these reporters out for using these misleading tricks in order to generate a "story" that doesn't accurately reflect what is actually happening:
The chart in the article shows that ridership has been falling for one year, based on just one data point (Later in a Tweet, Nelson told me she had two data points, with ridership down in both calendar 2014 and ’15, but that’s not in the article or the chart.)
                                                                                                                                                            Los Angeles Times

Based on these one or two points, the authors propose a vast and ominous trend:
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.
Accelerating? You need many data points to support this claim, because you are saying not just which way the line is going but also how it’s curving.  What the published chart shows is that:
    • There’s a larger interesting story about the broad fall in ridership across the 90s and dramatic recovery across the 00s.
    • Ridership has been generally flat since 2006, going up and down in about a 10% band, with no sign of strong movement in any direction.
Walker explains that transit ridership is very "noisy," with yearly boarding totals affected by a variety of factors from weather to gas prices to the overall economy, so it takes a long time, and multiple data points, before a trend can be determined.
When a journalist says some grand thing has been happening since year y, you should immediately ask: “why year y in particular?”  Again, here’s how the article opens:
For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
Why “almost a decade”?  Why not just a decade?  Because if you compared 2015 to 2005 instead of 2006, ridership wouldn’t be down, and the authors wouldn’t have a story.

Sure, ridership is down 10% since 2006. But it’s up since 2011 and way up since 2004.  Want to talk about the grand sweep of history?  Nelson says that ridership is lower than it was 30 years ago, which sounds terrible, but it’s higher than it was 25 years ago!
Indeed, you can create any story about ridership you want simply by choosing a "starting year" on the graph above: "This “arbitrary starting year” trick is a very common in misleading journalism. Be suspicious whenever you see a single past year is cited as a point of comparison."

I completely understand the pressure for journalists to create a neat "story" that will generate all-important page views; as a commenter on Walker's blog says, "part of the problem with journalism is that you want to have a snappy headline. 'Transit Ridership Goes up and Down' won’t do it." However, journalists do a disservice when they use tricks such as the ones Walker identifies to exaggerate, or even fabricate, stories such as these. This is especially true of something as politically polarizing and as poorly understood as public transportation. Maybe it's another reason why journalism should come with warning labels.

In a second post, Walker takes issue with the same LA Times article for its apparent assumption that short-term ridership is the only worthwhile measurement of a transit system's success. In a third post, Walker picks apart a post by anti-transit extremist Randal O'Toole regarding LA's ridership decline; anybody who wants to understand why I, as a transportation planning professional, have very little respect or use for O'Toole and his screeds should read it.